Leading The Flock

I spent the night once in the DuPage County Jail in Chicago. I got there by being a leader, leading five other young men in the wrong direction. I saw a video recently that reminded me when a leader is wrong, it has serious impacts on many other people. In this video, we are watching an unremarkable street from what is obviously a security camera. Suddenly, a mass of black birds comes into screen from the top and plunges straight into the ground, killing hundreds.

When birds flock in large numbers, each bird is only paying attention to six or seven of its neighbors. Like cars on a highway, the birds are not too concerned with other birds being beside them as long as there is enough space in front of them to maneuver quickly. The flock affords protection for individual birds because every single bird can institute a flock maneuver away from a predator.

In the case of the birds above, experts believe they were fleeing from a predator and, in moving away from the danger, they were driven too close to the ground. The birds in the center of the flock could not move left or right, and so they crashed into the ground. Whether leaders are running from something or running to the wrong thing, it can have serious consequences for the others in the group.

Leadership is more about influence than about power. What we tell people is only fractionally as impactful as what we show people. In organizations, each person is paying close attention to just the few people immediately around them. Peers, possibly other team members, and most certainly, their direct leader. The clues we each pick up from those around us influence us to shift our position slightly in the direction we are being nudged. Often this influence is undetected by us.

However, people are not birds. In the case of the video above, the flock has no real leader, so all direction is from the slight influences from the edges of the flock. Without a strong leader, even the best intentions (to evade a predator) can unintentionally lead to tragedy. When a community has no strong leader, the results will be similar. Left to being nudged by those around them, individuals will move along, believing they are being led when they are not.

Whether a leader is heading in the wrong direction or providing no clear direction, the results are similar and usually unfortunate. The role of leadership is to steer the course for the community, first and foremost by example, then by clear and direct communication. Leading people only where they are already inclined to go or letting the flock move organically is easy, but it’s not actually leadership.

The responsibility of leadership is to determine where the community is to go and then lead the way. Leadership is not about power; it is about serving. Serving is being willing to take the risk of getting out in front to show the way while still paying attention to the nudges of the flock around you to avoid the predators you cannot see, and it is The Kimray Way.